There’s a spirit of DIY permeating this distillery… We had a cocktail recipe that called for absinthe, but not having absinthe wasn’t going to stand in our way.
We’re in the lucky position just now of having some fine and fruity Islay-grown barley-based spirit running off the whisky stills, and a garden full of interesting ‘weeds’ at “Academy House” from which we could forage substitute ingredients. So – classical absinthe’s wormwood Artemesia absinthium became Islay’s mugwort (the closely related Artemesia vulgaris) and we replacedits green anise with the bronze fennel which is just coming into flower.
One of the distinctive characteristics of absinthe is it’s vibrant green colour which, according to a well known search engine, is usually achieved through the addition of artificial colouring. We are not really in the game of faking things here at Bruichladdich, so we resolved to create as natural a green as we could. The guest chefs that we work with regularly here are a fantastic resource when it comes to tips about temperatures and techniques for such conundra, and after some consultation, we agreed that an extraction of the green herbs in the alcohol at a temperature of 60 •C for half an hour, using a vacuum-sealed pack in a waterbath (or ‘sous vide’), followed swiftly by putting the pouch on ice until it was used, would be our best chance of achieving both good flavour and the green colour.
We had just 200ml of spirit at 68.5% to play with, so we collected small quantities of the fresh herbs. One large pinch of mugwort leaves and another of tansy should give us enough of the famously trippy chemical thujone that has helped to give absinthe its reputation. Anethole is another, reponsible for the “louche effect” of turning absinthe cloudy when water is added. This also gives that note of aniseed or licorice. We find it from one large pinch of bronze fennel (the flower heads, and leaves). Then we fill with green flavours: a large sprig of lemonbalm, three fingers of tree mallow flowers and a whole forget-me-not plant. This last is from the borage family and was growing out of the gravel – it tastes of cucumber with a hint of spice.
After half an hour sous vide, the colour was strong and the flavour bitter yet still fruity – the barley possibly mostly gets the credit for that. We boosted the tropicalia after tasting by adding some tinctures we had kicking around from another recent experiment: two teaspoons from green hogweed seeds, and two of pineapple weed. A teaspoon of yarrow tincture aided the bitter satisfaction.
Honestly, though the smell and colour were very convincing, if repeating this experiment, the recipe would probably benefit from triple the quantity of fennel. We did not test the louche effect on this batch, so that’s another good reason to attempt a second version!